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Does Whitehall get the level of crisis in special schools?

All schools are facing a range of financial pressures, but these pressures are particularly acute in the special and alternative provision sector. This comes at a time when there is increased demand for special school places, with the majority of schools in the sector working at or over capacity.

Place funding for special and AP schools has been static for over a decade, at £10,000. And there are no signs of real financial growth for the sector over the coming years, as schools deal with increasing demand on specialist provision.

As well as increased demand and a lack of increased funding, there is also a great deal of uncertainty around what funding schools will receive. Schools are constantly having to battle to access a range of funding pots and grants. And funding changes and information from central government is often not delivered in a timely manner, making it difficult for schools to budget properly.

At the local authority level, there is a great deal of variety in funding arrangements. Banding arrangements between LAs lack consistency, and schools spoke of the need to move towards a more homogenised system. It isn’t always clear what funding will reach schools from the LAs, with future uncertainty over the minimum funding guarantee (MFG).

In a survey of the National Network of Special Schools for School Business Professionals (NNoSS) in February, the unfunded support staff pay award is, for many schools, a key pressure on budgets. Of the over 100 special and AP schools represented in the survey, over 90 per cent said they expected additional financial struggles as a result of support staff pay increases.  

Support staff and teaching assistants play a central role in special and AP schools, ensuring students are ready to learn, and that teachers are able to teach. The staff pay award then is deserved. It is also necessary to recruiting and retaining the right staff, and maintaining the high staff-student ratios to keep students safe and special schools operational.

However, without additional funding for the staff pay awards, there is a risk it will have a serious impact on schools can provide. While schools will have to make budget cuts, there are only so many staffing cuts that can safely be made.

Funding at the school level is not the only concern

In our survey, while two-thirds of schools said they were not in a deficit for the 2022/23 academic year, over half are projecting a deficit either this academic year or next. The special schools’ MFG for 2023 to 2024 was set 3 per cent, but over 80 per cent of respondents said that, if the MFG returned to 0 per cent in 2024/25, their provision would struggle financially.

The commitment in the Spring Budget of £105 million towards the building of 15 special schools, creating over 2,000 places, is of course welcome, but it is not clear that this will meet the full scale of the challenge the special sector faces.

Concerns were raised in our survey about the lack of capital investment for existing special schools. Many are relying on past reserves which are now becoming depleted, as they struggle to meet higher site costs, including maintenance of specialist facilities and repairing damage done to buildings when students are dysregulated.

Funding at the school level is not the only concern. With students needing multi-agency support, it is important to think about the role health and social care play, and the funding pots they have. Schools are trying to meet need in a cost-effective manner, and this also needs to be done across different agencies and departments. A much clearer picture is needed of where need is being met, and how provision can best be delivered.

It is clear that reviewing arrangements for SEND funding is past urgent. However, it is unclear if this is fully appreciated or understood by DfE and central government. This crisis in the special sector primarily relates to funding, with financial pressures having a wide impact on their decisions.

Without adequate funding and clarity on funding arrangements, schools cannot effectively set budgets. Too much is done retrospectively, which inhibits strategic planning and school improvement.

Education policy needs to consider how to better deliver support for SEND students in both mainstream and special schools, and what is expected of schools and other agencies that support children and young people.

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